The US took six Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Uruguay early Sunday morning in a long-awaited deal that marks the largest detainee transfer since President Barack Obama pledged to close the detention facility in 2009. It is the first time detainees have been transferred to a South American country.
The detainees — none of whom had been charged with any crimes despite being held captive since 2002 — were first approved for release back in 2009, the US Department of Defense declared in a press statement announcing the action. Security concerns prevented the men from returning to their home countries, and the US had trouble finding a nation that would accept them.
"The transfer of six detainees to Uruguay is an important step toward ending the longstanding injustice of holding people indefinitely without charge at Guantanamo," Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Responsibility for illegal detention at Guantanamo lies with the US, but other countries can help end this abuse by following Uruguay's example and accepting detainees."
Uruguay's President Jose Mujica, a former rebel who spent 14 years as a political prisoner, agreed to take the six prisoners as a humanitarian action, he declared on his website.
"We have offered our hospitality to human beings who have suffered an atrocious kidnapping in Guantanamo," Mujica said. "The inescapable reason is humanitarian."
The freed prisoners include Syrian Abu Wa'el Dhiab, who has gone on repeated hunger strikes to protest his indefinite detainment with no trial. As previously reported by VICE News, Dhiab also sued to stop the military from force-feeding him. Three other Syrians were freed, along with one Palestinian and one Tunisian man.
"Despite years of suffering, Mr. Dhiab is focused on building a positive future for himself in Uruguay," Cori Crider, a director at the organization Reprieve and a lawyer for Dhiab, said in a statement. "He looks forward to being reunited with his family and beginning his life again. Let's not forget that Mr. Dhiab and the others freed today leave behind many men just like them: cleared prisoners warehoused in Guantánamo for years."
Dhiab is part of an ongoing lawsuit that seeks to force the US government to release video of the military's force-feeding techniques. Attorneys from Reprieve say the litigation will continue, and that Dhiab's weight had dropped to around 140 pounds in recent weeks. They also claim the prison "inexplicably confiscated" juice the organization sent to Dhiab "to help him come off his hunger strike safely," and refused to hand over medical information.
A whole year has passed since the US and Uruguayan governments discussed the prisoners' transfer, partly because of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's hesitance to approve the deal, the Miami Herald reported.
The release brings the population at Guantanamo to 136 prisoners, the lowest level since 2002. Some advocates hope Uruguay's move leads other South American countries to accept prisoners. Sixty-seven Guantanamo detainees have been cleared for transfer but currently have nowhere to go.
"Uruguay is showing important leadership in helping to end the gross injustice that is Guantanamo," Joy Olson, the executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, declared in a statement. "The Obama administration needs the help of other countries."
Congress has blocked proposals to transfer detainees to the US.
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman